7 Reasons Evangelicals Struggle to Respond Properly to Allegations of Abuse and Rape

Editor’s Note: contains references to rape, sexual harassment, and abuse.

In light of the Paige Patterson situation (read Rod Dreher’s description of and comments on it here), I’ve been reflecting on why time and time again evangelicals fail to respond properly to allegations of sexual harassment, abuse, or rape.

It looks like pastors telling abuse victims to return home and submit. Urging rape victims not to report crimes to the police. Sharing objectifying comments about young girls met with laughter rather than rebuke. Assuming alleged victims are lying or exaggerating. Handling allegations internally rather than reporting to the authorities and bringing in experts. Being unwilling to examine the evidence. Dismissing those who do as gossips or slanderers.

On the one hand, it blows my mind that people can be so ignorant and/or evil. And on the other hand, I recall that it’s only been in the last few years that I myself have learned about such things. But now that I do know, I see it everywhere—including in the church!

But why is this? Why do people, and particularly conservative Christians, repeatedly fail in these ways? Why the aversion to truth? Why so slow in the ways of justice? Why the failure to love neighbor? Why the disbelief that such evil could be in our midst?

One reason Christians fail is because people fail, and Christians are people. Other reasons relate to beliefs and fears that are specific to evangelical culture. In this second category, I’ve come up with seven reasons why Christians may tend to fail to respond properly to allegations of abuse or rape (or why they cannot tolerate the idea of those they respect having responded poorly). At the end of this article, I’ve included some suggestions for how Christians can respond better—in a manner befitting our commitment to love for one’s neighbor and love for God—and some resources for further study.

  1. A distorted view of authority. God is the ultimate authority and has created earthly authorities. He has given authority to governments, church elders, parents, and others. Christians are right to believe in and properly submit to such authority. The problem comes, however, when an earthly authority is made ultimate and unaccountable, above all critique or criticism. (Behind this is perhaps of fear of anarchy, of the dissolution of rightful authority, as well as a fear of losing control of those under authority.)
  2. Viewing specific churches, denominations, or organizations as ultimate and necessary. Sometimes Christians place too high an importance on specific churches or organizations which can lead to obsession about reputation and appearance over truth and justice. One might call this an idolization of power. This relates to a conflation of the success of a church or denomination with the success of the church or the gospel. People worry that if their organization falls because of “scandal,” the gospel itself will fall.
  3. Ignorance about harassment, abuse, and rape. Some Christians don’t understand abuse dynamics, reasons for delayed reporting, or even the basic definitions of harassment, rape, and abuse. Thus they fail to respond appropriately. Part of this may be because many Christians cannot fathom what it would be like to perpetrate abuse or rape, and they impose their “goodness” on those around them, failing to take into account the depth of evil possible even by professing Christians.
  4. Failure to understand the seriousness of sex crimes. Sometimes Christians engage in “sin leveling” when it comes to sexual sins, failing to recognize that sexual assault is much more grievous than lustful thoughts; in such cases, the result tends to being minimizing of sex crimes. Similarly, some fail to understand that some things are “merely” sinful while other things are both sinful and criminal.
  5. Misplaced opposition to liberalism. In American culture at present, liberals–whether political, cultural, or theological–tend to talk more about rape, harassment, and abuse than conservatives (who talk more about chastity, pornography, and adultery). This has led some conservatives to wrongly conflate opposition to sex crimes with liberalism. Perhaps it is difficult to accept truth when it comes from “the other side.” In my opinion, liberals have much they could learn about sexuality from conservatives; however, a proper understanding of and response to abuse and rape are some of the issues in which conservatives could learn from liberals.
  6. Fear of heroes falling. Humans like to have people to look up to. We love our heroes. The mere suggestion that those whom we respect could be guilty of grossly mishandling allegations of sex crimes (or of the sex crimes themselves!) can be extremely disconcerting. We wonder what will happen to us, and what it says about us, if our heroes are deeply flawed. And so it is easier not to entertain such thoughts, rejecting such accusations as being from “the haters.”
  7. Faulty theology of repentance and reconciliation. At the heart of Christianity are repentance and reconciliation. God, through Christ, reconciles sinful humanity to himself when they repent and believe. This reconciliation is echoed in relationships between people. Reconciliation, however, can be misapplied when victims of abuse are urged to “forgive and forget” at the expense of truth, justice, or healing. Or when the perpetrator feeling bad for being caught is mistaken for genuine repentance. Or when even genuine repentance is seen as necessitating the alleviation of consequences.

In summary, Christians may respond poorly to allegations of abuse due to ignorance, idolatry, fear, or flawed theology. The call, then, is: to embrace truth even when it’s difficult; to trust that Christ will build his church (even if our local churches or denominations fail); and to believe that doing justly on behalf of victims of abuse or rape is right and is actually a better testimony to the watching world than excusing or covering it up.

What Should Christians and Churches Do?

  • Learn about power dynamics and abuse dynamics.
  • Learn to recognize tactics abusers use to cover up their crimes and the likely responses to exposure.
  • Evaluate doctrines of authority, repentance, the church, and reconciliation to see if they are in line with truth.
  • Listen to and support (emotionally and practically) people leaving abusive relationships.
  • Speak up when you witness harassment and objectification.
  • Teach respect, chastity, and consent in your families and communities.
  • Support legislation based on best practices for dealing with harassment, abuse, and rape.
  • Advocate for good policies in churches, organizations, and denominations.
  • Be humble–willing to learn.
  • Admit when you’ve acted or believed wrongly, and seek to make it right.

Sample Resources

This concludes my current ponderings on the way Christians deal with abuse. Thank you for reading—especially as this is a serious and grieving topic. But friends, it is so important!

What about you? How have you seen Christians respond to abuse? What are some other factors that could contribute to poor responses? And what resources do you recommend for those wanting to learn more?

Until next time,

~Hannah 🌸

Check out some of my previous articles:

Believing Jane: Reflections on a Rape and it’s Cover-Up at The Master’s College & Seminary

When Traditional Values Create Toxic Churches

When Your Sin is Exposed, Run to Jesus

When Your Sin is

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
– Hebrews 4:12-16, NIV

Every pastor has a pastor – someone that they can talk with and go to for spiritual advice. If you’re a pastor, and you don’t have a pastor, then get one. You’ll go insane. At the very least, get a therapist. I don’t really recommend that option because therapists tend to charge by the hour and ask you about your feelings in a very unfeeling way, but I digress.

I was listening to a recent sermon my pastor (which can find at this link), and he briefly expounded on Hebrews 4:12-16, and I wanted to share with you my take away from his exposition.

Notice, first of all, that our passage tells us of the sharpness of God’s word, and how it is that sharpness that tears into the root of our being. And what is it that is at the core our being? Sin. We’re sinful, and the word of God exposes that sin before a holy God. The same holy God before whose presence Isaiah feared that he might die because he was a man of unclean lips. So, if this is the case, then what hope is there for us?

Our hope is that Jesus is a faithful high priest who has taken upon Himself the sins of those who run to Him for light and life. Because He always lives to intercede for us (Hebrews 7:25), we are able to approach the throne of grace and receive mercy in the time of need. And when do we need mercy? All the time, especially when we see our sin exposed before Him, and do you know what? We can rejoice because it has all been laid on Christ.

“Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid”
– Keith Getty & Stuart Townsend

“And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
– Revelation 5:9-10, NIV

Jesus paid for you, and He continually intercedes for you. Go in peace.

The Proper Distinction Between Law & Gospel by C.F.W. Walther

Law&Gospel

Thesis I.
The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.

Thesis II.
Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.

Thesis III.
Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.

Thesis IV.
The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.

Thesis V.
The first manner of confounding Law and Gospel is the one most easily recognized — and the grossest. It is adopted, for instance, by Papists, Socinians, and Rationalists, and consists in this, that Christ is represented as a new Moses, or Lawgiver, and the Gospel turned into a doctrine of meritorious works, while at the same time those who teach that the Gospel is the message of the free grace of God in Christ are condemned and anathematized, as is done by the papists.

Thesis VI.
In the second place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness, when, on the contrary, Gospel elements are mingled with the Law and Law elements with the Gospel.

Thesis VII.
In the third place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is preached first and then the Law; sanctification first and then justification; faith first and then repentance; good works first and then grace.

Thesis VIII.
In the fourth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.

Thesis IX.
In the fifth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed, not to the Word and the Sacraments, but to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when thy are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace.

Thesis X.
In the sixth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher describes faith in a manner as if the mere inert acceptance of truths, even while a person is living in mortal sins, renders that person righteous in the sight of God and saves him; or as if faith makes a person righteous and saves him for the reason that it produces in him love and reformation of his mode of living.

Thesis XI.
In the seventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when there is a disposition to offer the comfort of the Gospel only to those who have been made contrite by the Law, not from fear of the wrath and punishment of God, but from love of God.

Thesis XII.
In the eighth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher represents contrition alongside of faith as a cause of the forgiveness of sin.

Thesis XIII.
In the ninth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when one makes an appeal to believe in a manner as if a person could make himself believe or at least help towards that end, instead of preaching faith into a person’s heart by laying the Gospel promises before him.

Thesis XIV.
In the tenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when faith is required as a condition of justification and salvation, as if a person were righteous in the sight of God and saved, not only by faith, but also on account of his faith, for the sake of his faith, and in view of his faith.

Thesis XV.
In the eleventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is turned into a preaching of repentance.

Thesis XVI.
In twelfth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher tries to make people believe that they are truly converted as soon as they have become rid of certain vices and engage in certain works of piety and virtuous practices.

Thesis XVII.
In the thirteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a description is given of faith, both as regards its strength and the consciousness and productiveness of it, that does not fit all believers at all times.

Thesis XVIII.
In the fourteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the universal corruption of mankind is described in such a manner as to create the impression that even true believers are still under the spell of ruling sins and are sinning purposely.

Thesis XIX.
In the fifteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher speaks of certain sins as if there were not of a damnable, but of a venial nature.

Thesis XX.
In the sixteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a person’s salvation is made to depend on his association with the visible orthodox Church and when salvation is denied to every person who errs in any article of faith.

Thesis XXI.
In the seventeenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when men are taught that the Sacraments produce salutary effects ex opere operato, that is, by the mere outward performance of a sacramental act.

Thesis XXII.
In the eighteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a false distinction is made between a person’s being awakened and his being converted; moreover, when a person’s inability to believe is mistaken for his not being permitted to believe.

Thesis XXIII.
In the nineteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when an attempt is made by means of the demands or the threats or the promises of the Law to induce the unregenerate to put away their sins and engage in good works and thus become godly; on the other hand, when an endeavor is made, by means of the commands of the Law rather than by the admonitions of the Gospel, to urge the regenerate to do good.

Thesis XXIV.
In the twentieth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the unforgiven sin against the Holy Ghost is described in a manner as if it could not be forgiven because of its magnitude.

Thesis XXV.
In the twenty-first place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.

You may read each of C.F.W. Walther’s lectures on these theses at this link.

Systematic, Biblical, and Historical Theology

3 Theologies

I’ve got a high school diploma and a whole semester of technical college under my belt and I’m going to crudely explain Systematic, Biblical, and Historical Theology.

Systematic Theology

This is the most common way to study theology. Basically, all of the information in Scripture is put into different categories and these categories are taught ‘systematically’ (hence the name). The main idea behind systematic theology is make clear what Scripture as a whole teaches about a particular doctrine or idea.

Recommended: “Foundations of the Christian Faith” – James Montgomery Boice

Biblical Theology

Biblical Theology is a less common way to look at theology, but it is still important nonetheless. Personally, this is my favorite way to look at theology so it’s possible that I could be a little biased. Biblical Theology seeks to looks at the narrative of Scripture on a particular topic. Because of this, Biblical Theology will, at times, overlap with Systematic Theology. The main difference is how the ideas are presented. While Systematic Theology looks at what Scripture as a whole says about an idea or a doctrine, Biblical Theology will often look to see how that doctrine or idea has evolved from Genesis to Revelation.

Recommended: What is Biblical Theology? – James Hamilton

Historical Theology

Finally, we come to the seemingly most ignored of the three methods, Historical Theology. While Historical Theology does look at what Scripture says about a particular doctrine or idea, it also goes outside the bounds of Scripture and looks at how a particular doctrine or idea has been taught and examined throughout church history leading up to the present day.

An article on Got Questions accurately summed it up in this way:

“Like any area of theology, historical theology is also sometimes used by liberal scholars and non-Christians to cast doubt upon or attack the essential doctrines of the Christian faith as simply being the concoctions of men instead of the divinely revealed biblical truth that they really are. One example of this is in the discussion of the triune nature of God. The historical theologian will study and trace the development of this doctrine throughout church history knowing that this truth is clearly revealed in Scripture, yet throughout church history there have been times when the doctrine came under attack and thus it was necessary for the church to define and defend the doctrine. The truth of the doctrine comes directly from Scripture; however, the church’s understanding and proclamation of the doctrine has been clarified over the years, often in times when the nature of God had come under attack by those “savage wolves” that Paul warned would come.”

The article goes on to say:

“Historical theology, when correctly understood and applied, does not diminish the authority or sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture alone is the standard in all matters of faith and practice. It alone is inspired and inerrant. Scripture alone is our authority and guide, but historical theology can help us understand the many dangers of some “new teaching” or novel interpretation of Scripture. With over 2,000 years of church history and thousands if not millions of Christians preceding us, shouldn’t we be automatically wary of someone who claims to have a “new explanation” or interpretation of Scripture?”

Recommended: Historical Theology – Alister McGrath

Conclusion

Systematic theology asks, “What does the Bible as a whole say about x?”

Biblical theology asks, “How did the writers of Scripture understand the idea of x, and how did this concept evolve from Genesis to Revelation?”

Historical theology asks, “What can we learn about x from the time of the Bible all the way up to our present day?”

None of these methods are perfect. They all have their pros and cons. Glean from all three methods of studying and don’t just get stuck in one mode because you’ll create a theological blindside for yourself.

Like I said earlier, this is a crude explanation. If I left something out or said something incorrectly (and I probably did), let me know about it in the comments.

God bless.